A weak and fickle government
Six months ago, when Malcolm Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, many people breathed a sigh of relief. Abbott had never been personally popular and had compounded this by knighting Prince Philip on Australia Day, persisting with an over-generous parental leave scheme at a time when other spending was being cut, and introducing the 2014 horror budget that Australia needed but that appeared to break pre-election commitments. Abbott, it seemed, was almost as bad as Julia Gillard who had promised no carbon tax but then brought one in.
On the other hand, as promised, Abbott had scrapped the carbon tax and the mining tax; he did stop the boats; he did kick-start infrastructure; he did finalise the historic free trade deals that other prime ministers had talked about for years but not delivered; and he had talked a lot about budget repair prior to the election, even calling it a budget emergency. There was an orderly process to consider the options for federation reform and tax reform through two white papers and also to develop the proposal for constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.
What has Turnbull done in six months to justify knifing the elected prime minister? Well, he’s kept Abbott’s policies to stop the boats, have a same-sex marriage plebiscite, reduce emissions without a carbon tax, and crack down on terrorists, even to the point of stripping their citizenship. These were all the policies, pre-coup, he let people know he privately opposed. Apart from that, he’s spent $1 billion on “government-knows-best” innovation incentives, given even more of our foreign aid budget to overseas climate change boondoggles, opened the back door to an ETS through overseas carbon credits, and kept the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.
Oh, and he’s thrown another $3 billion at the states for their inefficient public hospitals to try to avoid a pre-election scare campaign. In other words, he’s annoyed his leftist backers by keeping all the Abbott policies they hated. And he’s infuriated conservatives by looking like Labor-lite when it comes to big spending and big government.
Turnbull was supposed to be a breath of fresh air: consultative, collegial, caring, intelligent and compassionate. Politics would no longer be about adversarial slogans but there would be real engagement with people , even with the opposition , to craft a future based on a shared understanding that “there’d never been a more exciting time to be Australian”.
What bollocks it’s all turned out to be. There was a political strategy crying out to be adopted that would have ensured that nice, sensible, he-must-know-what-he’s-doing-because-he’s-made-a-lot-of-money Mr Turnbull could have adopted to ensure an election win, possibly even with an increased majority.
That was to promise prudent, frugal, competent government with a tweak here and a twist there to ensure that we remained the most economically successful and socially harmonious country on earth; and to contrast “steady as she goes” under the Coalition with a Labor Party that hadn’t learned and couldn’t change and was promising increased taxes on everything under a leader who couldn’t even bring himself to condemn the thugs at the CFMEU.
But that would have been too much like the hated Abbott. And besides, Malcolm has to be the smartest person in every room. It’s why his public discourses go on and on without ever seeming to come to a conclusion. Not only was he destined to be prime minister but destined to be a historic one.
Hence we had the debate about raising the GST and reintroducing state income taxes , which lasted until the commentariat complained and the polls turned sour, like the on-off proposal to change negative gearing rules and the definite-perhaps election on July 2. His spinners say this was all part of a cunning plan but to an increasingly bemused public it just looks clueless.
Make no mistake, Turnbull doomed his prime ministership before it had even begun when he damned Tony Abbott on the basis of being consistently behind in the polls. What he was saying is that governments don’t just have to win elections, they have to win the polls too: if not every time, at least most of the time. This absolutely guarantees weak and fickle government.
The Turnbull Doctrine means that the government (or at least its leader) has failed if it ever does anything that causes the public to be more than momentarily off-side. Until the Turnbull Doctrine is repudiated, Australia faces rule-by-polls rather than rule-by-government.
If Turnbull had stolen the prime ministership to govern with an assurance previously lacking and to impose an economic narrative previously absent, citizens would readily have forgiven him. They know that politics is a brutal game and that good leaders sometimes need blood on their hands. But to cut down a first-term prime minister doing a reasonable job under difficult circumstances only to be less organised, less decisive, and now scarcely better in the polls looks like self-indulgent ambition to put it at its best.
The Turnbull government is in desperate trouble. After the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd chaos, people expected better of the Liberal Party. Now that it has copied Labor rather than learned from it, the Coalition may find it increasingly difficult to win the forthcoming federal election.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University. His latest book is the political/sexual satire ‘Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure’.
The Canberra Times, 6 April 2016.
Also The Age online.